They arrived quietly for folks committed to utterly destroying the town.

The old Fox manor, on the outside of town, had been left fallow since Mrs. Fox had died in ’87. Her only relatives, two bitter cousins from upstate, were both happy to let the place crumble so long as the other didn’t inherit. One morning, though, there was activity there. Lights in repaired windows, brush cleared away, and planking over the roof holes. Perhaps most distressingly for the high school students, decades’ worth of graffiti had been scrubbed off the brick and one of the premier love nests in a fifteen-mile-radius was suddenly off-limits.

At a city council meeting, a concerned citizen who was definitely not acting as a shill for one of the Fox cousins, asked Sheriff Decker directly about the new ownership. “I just want to make sure it’s legal and lawful,” she said, “and not some dirty squatters building a meth lab just to get their dirty crystals into our schools quicker.”

Decker, seated at the end of the council table with cowboy boots on the table, waved the concern away. “They’re great people living there, great people,” he said. “The best. Not like most of the folks come though here, just looking to steal, not like all those folks on Pettus St., but good folks.”

“Well, have you been over there? Have you talked to them? Are they paying taxes? What’s their name?”

Once again, Decker flapped a hand as if shooing away a fly. “They say they bought the land, and I believe them. Didn’t catch their name, but I’m sure they’re paying taxes. Very nice young man answered the door, said his grandmother bought the place to retire in. I’m sure they’ll be great citizens.”

“Have you checked? Looked at the paperwork?”

Decker deliberately lowered his cowboy boots from the table and rocked forward. The big Stetson he wore to hide that Decker family baldness tilted as he looked down the length of his nose at the council chamber.

“I’m sure they’ll be great citizens,” he said with an air of finality. “You want more than that, you can go there and bother them yourself.”

Business soon moved on to voting for sewer repairs (failed), money for repainting the elementary school (failed) and–the reason Decker was there–expansion of the county jail to house inmates from one county over for a fee (passed). As the discussion continued, an attendee slipped out of the back of the chamber and sauntered away. Twenty minutes later, after a brisk walk, they whistled into the Fox house.

“Looks like we’re good,” they said. “What can I say? I’m a convincing liar, especially when the sheriff is that clueless.”

“The Marquess heard Syd’s news with quiet elation.” A voice, soft and feminine but commanding, a steel saber in a velvet scabbard, replied. “She went on to ask if anyone at the town meeting had expressed any concerns, for as Syd well knew, the first days after their arrival were always the most dangerous to their work.”

“Other than a shill who took twenty bucks from Veronica Fox to complain? Nah.” As Syd spoke, their voice and appearance changed, running like tallow and fluttering in pitch. They’d entered the manse looking like a nondescript middle-aged busybody, the sort that would attend city council meetings for kicks, but once the Marquess had finished, Syd was sporting pink hair in a buzz cut, some very metal attire, and a distinctly more feminine look.

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